About the book
Lady Gwendoline Lockwood has grown to despise every single Farraday.
Raised in the crossfire of her family’s blood feud with the Earldom of Elderdale, she would never budge an inch in their favor. Even less when she is consecutively challenged by their offspring.
Caspian Farraday, firstborn son of the Earl of Elderdale, strives to be his father’s son. Struggling to live up to what is expected of him, he finds solace where hatred once brewed: Lady Gwendoline’s eyes.
Determined to unveil the roots of the rivalry, they decide to put their differences aside to make amends for past sins.
The discovery of old letters defies all they have ever known and makes them allies in a game that started before they were even born. A forbidden love that never thrived turned the lives of everyone around them into a battlefield.
But when Caspian is critically wounded in a horse-riding accident, they need to look for the enemy at an arm’s length...
The ballroom was like something out of a fairy tale. Its gilded walls shined in the flickering light of the lamps and in the calm moonlight. Silver and gold met, highlighting the delicate patterns on the room’s blue paper. The room was tall and swept upwards into a high, vaulted ceiling decorated with a meticulously painted representation of the night sky. But the most striking aspect of the room was the ton, all of them clearly merry and pleased. That was, save for one young woman, who stood resolutely against the ballroom’s wall.
Despite her bright-green silk dress, Lady Gwendoline Lockwood, the only child of the Earl of Newhost, looked far from lady like given the cross expression stretching across her face. The subject of her displeasure was the tall and broad-shouldered Caspian Farraday, the firstborn son of the Earl of Elderdale. He had a handsome, trim figure, complimented by the fashionable cut of his indigo waistcoat. His dark hair was a sharp contrast to his pale, fine-boned face. And if Gwendoline approached him, she knew she’d see the enchanting spread of peach freckles that spanned his nose.
It is quite unfair for such an abominable man to also be so terribly handsome, but then, the devil was once an angel and beautiful, too. Or so I have heard.
Perhaps, Lord Caspian was due for a quick and unfortunate fall from grace. That would be a delightful turn of events.
But it seemed as if fate itself had determined to spite Gwendoline. As she watched, Lord Caspian was joined by his younger brother, Lord Noah. Lord Caspian greeted his brother by slapping him on the back, a gesture which seemed to draw a good-natured laugh.
Gwendoline scowled. Lord Noah was an attractive man, too, with the same, thick dark hair and piercing green eyes. Gwendoline made silent notes of the gentlemen gathered around the Earl’s children. As far as she was concerned, those gentlemen had chosen a side: Farraday. And because of their blatant favoritism, they would see no favor from Gwendoline, if they desired it.
“The first ball of the season, and you have determined to spend it as a wallflower. An inspired approach,” a voice interrupted her thoughts.
Gwendoline turned to see Lady Florence Altman, her best friend since girlhood, walk toward her. As the other Lady approached, Gwendoline let out a soft sigh. “I just hadn’t realized that rabble was allowed here,” Gwendoline said.
Florence twisted a soft, golden curl around her finger and blinked her large, blue eyes. Her pink lips curled into a small smile. “How dare the Lord and Lady Hartford invite members of the ton to their own ball?”
“The Farradays are hardly a part of the ton. That would imply a certain level of decorum and grace which the entire family has failed to exhibit. Otherwise, they’d admit to the wrongdoings committed by Lady Helena and apologize for their unjust treatment of my family.”
Florence sighed and smoothed the pale-blue silk of her dress. Gwendoline recognized the gesture. Every time Florence was anxious, she petted her dress just like that, and no amount of chastisements from her mother could assuage such behavior.
“You might as well say what you’re thinking, Florrie,” Gwendoline muttered.
“You are a reasonable woman, Gwen. Unless, of course, the Farradays are being spoken of. I fear you will be cross with me if I dare say a word.”
Gwendoline winced and tried to ignore the little pang of guilt she felt. Florence was entirely right. Not that Gwendoline would ever say so aloud, of course.
“I promise that I shall not be cross with you.”
Doubt flashed in Florence’s eyes. “Nevertheless, don’t you think it’s a little much to glare at the man as if you wish him an early death?”
No. Because nothing was too bad for a Farraday. And like the rest of London society, Florence knew that.
But she can’t really understand. She does not carry the same burden I do. No one has wronged her family as much as mine was wronged by the Farradays.
“At the risk of drawing your ire…” Florence trailed off, her eyes searching Gwendoline’s face for a reaction.
“You might as well say what you mean. Coyness doesn’t suit you. Or any lady, for that matter.”
“So you say. I think if ladies always said what they meant—”
“The world would be an infinitely better place,” Gwendoline interrupted. “I’m firm in that conviction, despite what my father may say.”
Although Gwendoline kept her back straight and her shoulders back, she felt as though she wilted inside herself. Her father was a good man, for whom propriety was paramount, but sometimes, propriety was stifling. Like now.
The delightful image of storming across the ballroom floor and telling Lord Caspian precisely how low her opinion of him was danced in her mind. Perhaps, after she insulted him, she and the Lord could duel one another with pistols. In Gwendoline’s fantasy, she would obviously emerge victorious in such an endeavor, despite having never held a pistol in her life.
Florence’s lips twitched in amusement. “Don’t let your father hear you say that.”
“I wouldn’t. That would disappoint him.”
As would Gwendoline’s insistence on lingering by the wall with Florence. As the only Lockwood child, Gwendoline knew that she ought to be socializing, flitting about and laughing with the several wealthy and potential suitors in the room.
A pity the Farradays arrived. I feel as though that family has smothered all my desires to enjoy myself.
“Lord Noah isn’t too terrible,” Florence said.
Gwendoline shot her friend a withering look.
“Come, now,” Florence replied. “You know that the Farraday family is distantly related to my mother. You can’t possibly expect me to avoid them forever. Lord Noah seems to be a decent sort of man, and I daresay Lord Caspian is not so dreadful either, although he’s something of an acquired taste.”
“The most cunning, selfish men usually do seem as if they are not so terrible,” Gwendoline countered. “No doubt Lord Noah is a gifted actor.”
“I think he is sincere, which is quite exceptional. Lord Elderdale is a very cold man; you know.” Florence lowered her voice. “I feel genuinely sorry for his poor wife. During her last miscarriage, the Lady begged for him to return from the Orkneys and comfort her, but he did not even dignify her pleas with a response.”
Gwendoline clenched her jaw. Part of her did feel a spark of empathy for the poor Countess. Although most aristocrats did not marry for love, Gwendoline’s parents liked one another well enough. They were kind and respectful, and both her parents had doted on her.
“I do have sympathy for Lady Elderdale,” Gwendoline conceded. “Nevertheless, the sentiment is not extended to her sons. I’m sure they’re quite terrible, regardless of what you may believe, and nothing you say will convince me otherwise.”
Florence shook her head, and with a rueful smile, she held out her hands. “You need something else to occupy your attention. Then, you’ll hardly care that the Farradays are present.”
Gwendoline forced a smile, her resolve crumbling when faced with her friend’s kindness. The ladies linked arms, as if they were sisters, and drifted closer to the crowd of elegantly clothed ladies.
Gwendoline tossed her head back and painted a brilliant smile across her face. In situations such as this, she liked to imagine herself as putting on a costume or becoming a character in a play. She was some headstrong heroine, playing a part and being a proper lady.
Except that if I was a heroine, I would have some wonderful secrets. Midnight escapades and adventures. Something like that.
The image of her sneaking through a darkened castle corridor with a lantern and a long, billowing cloak lifted by the wind sprang in her mind’s eye. How wonderful it must be to live inside the pages of a novel and have the steadfast knowledge that everything would end well in one’s life!
“I wonder,” Gwendoline said, “If you sometimes think I’m a cat, Florrie. Easily distracted by the least little thing.”
“Hardly that. Although you do sulk like an angered cat sometimes,” Florence replied.
Cats lead wonderful lives, too. They have no obligations save to keep the kitchens free of mice, and that is already in their nature. If only I could be so free!
As Gwendoline and Florence approached, the gathering of ladies invited them with warm smiles. Lady Sophia and Lady Lydia, the fair-haired twin daughters of the Marquess of Hartford were part of the group. Although the sisters were identical in appearance, their tastes were remarkably different. Sophia was a quiet, studious creature; her sister Lydia would accept nothing less than always being the center of any engagement.
Sophia wore only soft shades of gray and blue, while Lydia favored brilliant shades of red and purple. But they were both dears. While the sisters were never as close to Gwendoline as Florence was, they were all childhood companions. Gwendoline thought longingly of those days, where she managed to escape her poor, long-suffering governess and hide in the massive, walled gardens with her friends.
With the sisters was Miss Eleanor, the daughter of the Baron of Westfoss. She was a beauty with auburn hair and sparkling green eyes. The lady was clever and had a strange, awkward sort of wit that Gwendoline had never been able to keep up with.
“Good evening,” Lydia said. “Are you enjoying yourselves?”
Gwendoline had been until she realized the Farraday family was in attendance, but despite her irritation, she nodded. “Your parents always plan the most exquisite balls. How could we not enjoy it?”
Lydia smiled. “Well, it is the first ball of the season. The ton would be terribly disappointed if we did not begin the London season as extravagantly as possible. A poor start foretells a poor end.”
“And I’m certain that our own marriage prospects had no bearing on the planning of this party,” Sophia said dryly.
“Be that as it may,” Lydia replied, with a shrug of her slender shoulders.
Gwendoline’s eyes swept over the crowd. She had her own marriage prospects to consider. And although Gwendoline envisioned meeting someone witty and enchanting, a prince charming like in the gilded, framed portraits which adorned her father’s grand manor, she knew the truth of the matter was significantly less romantic.
“Shall we predict which of us will be engaged first?” Florence asked.
“No,” Gwendoline said, “But I’ll be content to place myself last. I intend to make my beau work for my hand.”
Lydia laughed. Sophia’s eyes widened.
“You would,” Florence replied, “And I feel no shame in admitting that I cannot wait until the day when you find yourself engaged to a man of value.”
“If you truly cannot wait for that day, you ought to seek out my father,” Gwendoline replied. “Shall we? I do fancy a dance.”
So the ladies spread throughout the ballroom, and Gwendoline straightened her spine. It was time to do her father proud.
Gwendoline let herself drift along from one elegant gentleman to the next. She was one-and-twenty and still unwed. While many of her younger peers had husbands, she was her father’s only child and Gwendoline knew he was saving her hand for a particularly advantageous marriage.
Finally, Gwendoline bade her most recent partner farewell. Her face was hot, and she thought that—perhaps—she need not have applied any rouge to her face. It was surely red now, from passion and exertion. But at least, the color rising to her face would make her dark eyes shine like polished jet.
From across the room, Florence caught her friend’s eye. Gwendoline returned to her place by the wall and waited. After a few seconds, Florence joined her. The lady’s face was as flushed as Gwendoline suspected her own was, and her blonde curls were slowly becoming more disheveled.
“I see you’re enjoying yourself,” Gwendoline said.
Florence let out a breathless, little laugh and fanned herself. “I have neglected my dancing lessons. I’m afraid I have grown lax during my time on my father’s little country estate.”
Gwendoline didn’t believe that for an instant. Everyone knew that Florence was an exceptionally active, young lady.
“I’m certain your partners are very pleased,” Gwendoline replied. “They always are.”
Florence grinned. She raised a delicate hand and attempted to smooth her curls once again. “I do my best. Speaking of, have you heard about Lord Carmichael?”
“What about him?”
“I heard that he’s found a young lady in America, whom he wishes to wed. An actress.”
Gwendoline arched an eyebrow. “Well, Lord Carmichael has always been a rebellious sort of man. I never envisioned him marrying among the ton, as is. It’s a pity. He was a good man, and he’ll likely make an excellent husband.”
“But an actress!”
Gwendoline shook her head. She knew that she ought to be scandalized, but the pairing seemed reasonable to her. Lord Carmichael was a witty, theatrical man. A beautiful actress sounded just like the type of woman he’d admire.
“Do you think he intends to return to London with her?” Gwendoline asked.
“Oh, I hope so. I would enjoy some excitement,” Florence replied, her eyes alight. “It does sound terribly interesting. And when was the last time something truly scandalous happened in London?”
Gwendoline thought for a moment, trying to recall. “It would probably be Lady Weithorn.”
“Oh, yes!” Florence shook her head. “I wondered if she would make an appearance this season. I have heard that she insists on treating her baby, illegitimate or no, as her own heir. And the baby’s father still works in her stables.”
Gwendoline shook her head. Her father had spent weeks lamenting Lady Weithorn’s sudden fall from grace. “That’s admirable of her,” Gwendoline muttered, “that she cares so much.”
“Perhaps. But I imagine it will severely limit her opportunities for a good match,” Florence replied, furrowing her brow.
It’s so easy for a woman to lose her reputation. Lady Weithorn never committed any wrong before instigating that affair, and now, she’s ostracized from polite society. And even if she chooses to return, I doubt the ton would treat her with as much respect as they did before she left.
The music halted, more dancers retiring to the walls of the ballroom. Gwendoline’s nemesis, included. Lord Caspian left his partner and joined his brother. Gwendoline’s lips twitched into a frown.
Lord Caspian and his brother had been away for several seasons. The Farradays owned several properties in Spain, and the brothers had been there. They only returned to England a few months before the start of the current season.
Gwendoline had seen the two before but she couldn’t remember hating the sight of Lord Caspian’s face quite so much. And as Gwendoline watched, Lord Caspian looked directly at her. A broad smirk split his face. Gwendoline’s blood boiled. She refused to drop her gaze from his. She was not a coward, after all, and Lord Caspian’s arrogant expression was clearly meant to distress her.
As if his smile and stare weren’t insulting enough, Lord Caspian took a step forward. Then, another. And then, with his brother and two friends following, Lord Caspian began a slow, leisurely walk toward her.
Lady Gwendoline Lockwood was as beautiful as a rose in bloom. Her thick hair was impossibly dark and sleek, and her eyes shined like a deep pool of water. Presently, the lady’s cheeks were a pleasant shade of pink, which complimented well the silk of her green dress. Even Caspian had to admit that she was an attractive woman, but that lovely face and curvaceous body held a viper’s venom. Lady Gwendoline had a temper, too. And although Caspian was a gentleman, the thought of teasing the spawn of his family’s greatest nemesis turned over in his mind.
“Must we do this?” Caspian’s brother Noah whispered.
“Why shouldn’t we?” Caspian asked. “She’s a Lockwood.”
“That doesn’t mean you should seek out trouble,” Noah replied.
Perhaps, Noah didn’t. But the thought of tormenting Lady Gwendoline was just too enticing to pass on, and Caspian knew that it would take so little to vex the woman. Even the least little acknowledgement of her presence would do it. As he approached, Lady Gwendoline’s eyes narrowed. Her cheeks reddened, and her posture grew tense. She drew herself up like a cobra about to strike. Her nostrils flared as if she’d smelled something unpleasant.
Beside Lady Gwendoline, Lady Florence looked anxious. Her eyes darted between her friend and Caspian. Lady Florence’s lips twitched, like she wasn’t sure whether to frown or smile. A few of the ton who stood nearby brightened with interest, clearly eager to see the confrontation between London high society’s two greatest enemies.
Noah quickened his pace and swept around him. He smiled, flashing his brilliant, white teeth. “Good evening, Lady Gwendoline. Lady Florence.”
“Good evening,” Lady Florence said. “How are you gentlemen?”
Lady Gwendoline’s frown deepened, and although her eyes were dark, Caspian swore that he saw sparks of fire in their depths. The Lady did not take kindly to his appearance, but her lips twitched awkwardly upward and made a strained smile.
“We’re well,” Noah said quickly. “It’s wonderful to be back in London. Life is so dreary and slow in Spain.”
James and Alexander, Caspian’s companions since his early boyhood, remained with him. The pair had been Caspian’s co-conspirators in countless schemes, which often failed and resulted in some scolding. Although as he’d gotten older, Caspian had become quite adept in avoiding those. Whether his charms would likewise work on Lady Gwendoline’s sharp tongue remained to be seen, but Caspian suspected not.
“How unfortunate,” Lady Gwendoline replied.
James hardly seemed to notice Lady Gwendoline. Already, he’d fixed his attention on Lady Florence’s pretty face. James was a good man but liked to portray a roguish personality, which he expressed with his crooked grins and shining, brown eyes.
Alexander, tall and fair-haired, remained by Caspian’s side, looking quite bored.
But we’ll see how long he remains bored!
“It really is,” Noah said. “I had anticipated Spain being more exciting. I thought surely it could not be so dull as I remembered, but alas, it was.”
“Perhaps, your properties have the misfortune of being in an exceptionally poor part of the country. I have always enjoyed myself in Spain,” Lady Gwendoline replied.
“Have you considered, My Lady, that you like Spain so much because you’re equally as dull and dreary?” Caspian asked.
He hadn’t thought it possible for Lady Gwendoline’s face to become any redder than it already was, but it did. Her cheeks were flushed with such heat that it looked as if her whole head was a blazing inferno, edged with dark tendrils of night-dark hair.
“You clearly lack a refined aesthetic if you think that either I or Spain are dreary,” Lady Gwendoline said, her tone overflowing with false sweetness.
“I should imagine we all have a fine taste of aesthetics,” Noah said, with a nervous laugh. “We couldn’t be a part of the ton if we were heathens.”
“Agreed,” replied James, his attention still on Lady Florence.
“It is entirely possibly to be a part of the ton and lack any sense of good taste,” Caspian replied. “The evidence stands before me.”
“Did you come over here only to insult me?” Lady Gwendoline asked. “If either of us lacks any aspect of gentility, it is clearly you.”
Ah, that fiery tongue! Caspian’s grin broadened. Although Lady Gwendoline’s voice remained even, her expression and stance betrayed her. All the years of disdain for Caspian’s family seemed to radiate off Lady Gwendoline in waves, so palpable that Caspian felt as though he could see it.
“How unladylike it is to insult a gentleman,” Caspian replied.
“I am not insulting a gentleman,” she said.
James cleared his throat. “Lady Florence, would you feel inclined to dance?”
Lady Florence’s eyes darted to her friend’s face. “No, I think I must decline, but thank you very kindly for the offer, My Lord.”
Whatever else might be said about her, it was clear that Lady Florence was a loyal woman, who refused to abandon her friend.
A pity she’s decided to declare her allegiance for such an awful family, Caspian thought.
“Yes, Florence and I were just talking,” Lady Gwendoline said. “It was quite a pleasant conversation until it was interrupted.”
“Apologies,” Noah replied.
Caspian grimaced at how his brother clearly made an effort to sound as if he truly cared about inconveniencing either of the ladies. But despite growing up in the same household and the same family, Noah never had cared too much for the feud between the Lockwood and Farraday families. As far as Caspian’s younger brother was concerned, the feud happened so long ago that it hardly mattered anymore.
“I won’t apologize,” Caspian interrupted.
Noah gave him a long-suffering look, which Caspian met with a hasty grin.
James straightened his back and drew his attention away from Lady Florence, seemingly abandoning his pursuit for the night. “I have never heard you apologize for anything,” he said.
Caspian shrugged. “I’m seldom wrong, so there is little need to apologize.”
“Only a fool thinks he is seldom wrong,” Lady Gwendoline replied.
“Did you borrow that witticism from a poorly written novel?” Caspian asked.
“I wouldn’t even call it a witticism,” Alexander said.
Lady Gwendoline’s slender fingers curled inwards, her hands forming small fists. “Do you gentlemen have nothing better to do with your evening than to torment us?”
“Torment you?” Caspian asked, adding a mock gasp. “Perish the thought, My Lady! We merely came to engage in a delightful conversation, during the course of which you have clearly insulted me.”
“I only gave you what you earned,” Lady Gwendoline said, her voice beginning to tremble just slightly.
Just how far could Caspian push before that woman lost her composure? And did she even realize that his goal was to irritate her? Surely, she did, and yet she was so easily led to vexation.
“And I wonder what you have earned,” Caspian replied.
Noah’s eyes were warning, nearly pleading. Alexander looked suddenly interested, eager even, for what might come. Caspian felt as though his friends and Lady Florence suddenly grew quieter and stiller, as if waiting for some terrible calamity to befall.
“Excuse me?” Lady Gwendoline’s voice was icy.
“You know very well what I’m implying.”
For a moment, the Lady stared at him in silence, her eyes wide. She knew of the feud as well as Caspian did, but she seemed stunned that he’d had the gall to mention it in polite company. The Lord arched an eyebrow, waiting to see if the Lady would attempt to defend herself.
Lady Gwendoline took an audible breath of air and let it out slowly. “Oh, I know what you’re implying, and it’s quite the implication considering your family’s crimes.”
And there is was, the perfect opportunity to ruffle the feathers of the lovely young Lady. Caspian had admittedly never particularly understood his family’s need for perpetuating a feud that happened so long ago. But seeing Lady Gwendoline unsettled made it well worth pretending that the offense bothered him.
“My family has not participated in any crimes,” Caspian said. “We—”
“Please, don’t,” Noah said. “Surely, we don’t need to dredge the past up tonight, do we? Here, at the first ball of the season?”
“No,” Lady Florence quickly agreed.
“Oh, I think there’s no time like the present,” Alexander said, grinning.
James said nothing but glanced morosely in Lady Florence’s direction.
“No, I think we ought to discuss it,” Lady Gwendoline asked, crossing her arms. “After all, you have some gall, My Lord, in choosing to come here and speak to me tonight. And I know you mean to draw my ire. Is spreading heinous lies about my noble family insufficient for you?”
“Lies? Your family is the one which has spread lies all these years. Directly after your uncle abducted my beloved Aunt Helena, your family should have—”
“My uncle abducted no one!” Lady Gwendoline snapped. “It is apparent to everyone that your aunt was a scheming seductress, who—”
“My aunt was a noble and genteel woman,” Caspian argued.
“And perhaps, there was fault on both sides?” Noah offered weakly.
Caspian shook his head. “No, it’s quite clear with whom the fault lies.”
Lady Florence curled an arm around Lady Gwendoline’s. “Don’t you fancy some fresh air, Gwen?” she asked.
Lady Gwendoline’s face darkened. “I’ll not leave while I’m being insulted. My poor family was devastated by that harlot’s actions—”
“She was not a harlot. You have no right to make that kind of judgment about her. I realize that it’s difficult for you to believe that your own family might be capable of any wrongs, but—”
“My uncle abducted no one, and clearly, the only reason your family feels the need to say so is because you refuse to admit that moral failings of your own aunt!” Lady Gwendoline retorted, her voice slowly rising in volume.
“Not so loud,” Lady Florence whispered.
But from the venom in her eyes, Caspian doubted Lady Gwendoline would heed her friend’s words.
“There’s no need—” Noah began.
“Moral failings?” Caspian asked. “Why, I doubt your family would recognize moral failings in anyone. After all, it’s quite apparent that you do not recognize them in your own family. My aunt was the most loving, compassionate woman ever to grace the world. It was your uncle, a rake and a scoundrel, who took her from us.”
Lady Gwendoline laughed, the sound high-pitched and haughty.
“And not only did your uncle take our beloved Helena from us, but he also left us to contend with the wrathful Earl of Woodmore. My poor aunt could have married the good Lord Woodmore and lived a happy, peaceful life had if not been for—”
“Oh, please!” Lady Gwendoline snapped.
The Lady’s raised voice drew a few curious looks from those standing closest, but to Caspian’s delight, she didn’t seem to notice the attention.
“Your aunt wasn’t satisfied with the Earl of Woodmore. Instead, she hoped to ensnare my uncle for his wealth and title and—let’s be entirely honest—his handsome face. My uncle was quite a dashing man, much more than your aunt’s intended. Lady Helena was a woman with all the moral fiber of a lady of the night!”
Whispers hissed around them, but Lady Gwendoline seemed utterly oblivious to them. Her anger was like a physical force, transforming her from a beautiful, well-bred woman and into a fierce, angry creature. The woman’s face was red, her eyes brilliant, and her hair wild about her. There were the thorns that Caspian associated with Lockwood’s only child.
“Yes,” Caspian said, keeping his voice even and soft, “I can see quite clearly the sort of genteel cloth that you are cut from. You’re making quite a theatrical impression on the Lord and Lady Hartford’s guests.”
The Lady’s shoulders stiffened. Beside her, Lady Gwendoline’s dark eyes anxiously darted about the room. When Lady Gwendoline turned her attention to Caspian once more, his pulse quickened. He grinned and waited to see how she would react. With so much attention now on them, it would be difficult to leave the situation with any grace intact. Would Lady Gwendoline storm away? Or return the insult?
“You did this on purpose!” she hissed.
“He would never!” Alexander cut in.
Caspian gasped and painted an expression of mock innocence on his face. “All I did was try and wish you a pleasant evening! Why, you’re the one who decided to insult my beloved aunt’s honor!”
Lady Gwendoline’s lips pulled into a tight smile. She was pulled up tall and taut, like a predator preparing to pounce.
“If this is how you’re going to treat me, I think I’d best spend my evening elsewhere,” Caspian said, shaking his head.
Noah sighed quietly in relief. James offered Lady Florence an apologetic smile. So maybe the two of them weren’t exactly happy with him, but Noah and James would forgive him. They always did. As Caspian turned away, he exchanged a grin with Alexander, whose green eyes were bright with amusement.
“Wait.” Lady Gwendoline’s voice was like a battle flag.
Caspian looked over his shoulder, feigning polite curiosity. It wouldn’t do for him to be an embarrassment, too. After all, the game was only enjoyable if one of them was in the wrong.
Across the room, Caspian’s mother Joanne Farraday, Countess of Elderdale, met his gaze. It was unclear how much of the exchange she’d witnessed, but her green eyes, so like Caspian’s own, narrowed in warning. Looking at her, Caspian felt a sharp spark of guilt. She wouldn’t approve of his behavior; he knew that.
And past his own mother, Caspian saw the Earl of Newhost, his fingers curled around his wineglass like a vice. The man was clearly furious, and Caspian realized quite suddenly who the man would blame for this.
Maybe I shouldn’t have done this, Caspian thought. Maybe I have gone too far.
But it was far too late for him to back away from the matter.
Lady Gwendoline stormed forward, standing so close that Caspian could practically feel the heat shimmering from her body. “How dare you?” she hissed. “You may play everyone else at this ball like a prized instrument. You may convince everyone in your household, all your peers, and all your business partners that you are a decent man from good stock. But your behavior toward me speaks volumes about your true nature!”
Caspian stared at her, as guilt coiled in his belly. He’d caused this, and he had no idea how to fix it now.
“And what is my nature?” Caspian’s tone was flawless. Gentlemanly and concerned.
Maybe the best he could do was salvage his own reputation. There was no elegant way to untangle himself from this.
“You are a snake! Just like every other man in your family, and I should not be rebuked for speaking the truth! It would be worse for me to say nothing of your family’s vile treatment of my uncle and of your damaging of his sterling reputation than it would be for me to give name to the animal you are!”
Whispers rose around them, and for the merest instant, Lady Gwendoline seemed to falter. But she didn’t mumble apologies or even attempt to appear repentant. Instead, with her head held high, she stormed away. The ton parted before her, save for Lady Florence who came to her side and followed her.
“That was cruel,” Noah whispered.
It had been. In hindsight.
Caspian sighed. He watched Lady Gwendoline’s green dress as she crossed the ballroom and left. When Lord Newhost excused himself, following his daughter out, Caspian winced.
I shouldn’t have done that.
Richard Lockwood, the Earl of Elderdale, was a tall man who radiated strength and dependability. At least, he always had to Gwendoline, and throughout her life, Gwendoline’s father was always there for her. And at the very edge of her memory, Gwendoline remembered being a little girl and sitting on the edge of her father’s desk. She remembered bounding around his study and sketching, while he read legislation and law books. He’d been the best person in the world, but now, Gwendoline felt as though there was an abyss of time between them. She’d stopped being the perfect, little girl so long ago and had grown into a woman who was too flawed.
No matter how hard I try. I’m just not perfect, and I feel that’s what he expects from me now.
Although the man was nearing fifty years old, his hair remained thick and a rich light brown in color. As he paced the floor in his study, he reminded Gwendoline of an old lion. Regal and powerful.
Gwendoline winced and dropped her gaze to her hands, clasped in her lap. And yet she made sure to keep her back straight like a proper lady would. She knew a scolding was coming, and she had no desire to anger her father further.
“I cannot believe you would do something so foolish,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass us,” Gwendoline replied. “Lord Caspian provoked me. He wanted me to lose my temper.”
Richard’s dark eyes flicked to his daughter, and when Gwendoline dared peek at her father, she saw only disappointment. A knot tied itself in her chest, but that same knot of distress was followed with a fiery wave of indignation.
Even if Helena Farraday was a cruel seductress, Gwendoline’s uncle Charles hadn’t exactly emerged from what happened with his reputation intact. Richard was Charles’s younger brother, and sometimes, Gwendoline suspected that her father feared another family scandal. Charles was led too easily astray, or so Richard said. And Gwendoline felt that—if the whole mess with the Farradays had never occurred—her father would not be nearly as harsh with her as he was.
“Then, you should not have let him affect you as much as he clearly did,” Richard replied. “I expect better of you, Gwendoline. And I don’t think I’m overreaching to claim that I—and your mother—deserve better.”
“You do,” Gwendoline muttered.
It was entirely pointless to argue. Her father would not hear of it; Gwendoline knew that from experience.
“But you would have said something,” Gwendoline added. “Florrie will tell you that. She was there with me, and I know she’d agree that Lord Caspian and his friends were being unbearably uncouth.”
“I am a man and the head of this family,” Richard replied. “You are a young lady, and it is not a young lady’s place to defend the family honor.”
Gwendoline dug her fingers into the green silk of her dress. An image sprang unbidden to her mind. She imagined standing in the ballroom, drawing a sword, and challenging Lord Caspian to a duel. It was an utterly preposterous idea, of course. But it was one Gwendoline could imagine her father involved in. During his youth, he’d been in a couple of duels.
It just seemed so easy to be a man. And even though he’d purposefully provoked her, Gwendoline suspected Lord Caspian would carry significantly less blame for her outburst. His wrongdoings would be ascribed as mere mischief.
Young men were impulsive, after all. And though the Lord was nine-and-twenty, he was still young enough to have his flaws excused.
“Doubtlessly, I’ll have to address and repair this,” Richard continued, “And I refuse to apologize to them. You have put me in an impossible position, my girl. Why can’t you simply behave as a young lady ought to behave?”
Gwendoline once more felt a spark of anger. “And what would you have done if you were a young lady, Father?”
“I’d have politely removed myself from the situation and have kept the family reputation in good standing, and I certainly would have refrained from raising my voice and storming out like a madwoman.”
But her father hadn’t been there. And her father didn’t know what it was like having to keep silent and act proper all the time. Even rakes and scoundrels were afforded a little leniency, but never women.
“You would not have stood silently there,” Gwendoline replied.
“If that was the only way to avoid embarrassing our family’s good name, I certainly would have silently stood there.”
But that was a lie. Gwendoline knew it. Her father was a strong-willed and outspoken man. Everyone said so.
“I don’t know where you have gotten this rebellious nature,” her father muttered, sinking into a brocade chair, “But I expect you to learn to exhibit some control over it. You’re my only child. Surely, you realize how much depends upon you?”
As if he’d ever let me forget it! My father only impresses the importance of my duty upon me several times a day!
“I know,” Gwendoline said, trying to conceal the anger boiling in her blood. “I know a lot depends upon me, and I want to be a good daughter—”
“Do you? I couldn’t tell from your recent behavior.”
But I’m not perfect! It’s hardly fair to impress upon me how much I should hate the Earl of Elderdale and then, expect me to demurely withstand any insulted paid to my family!
“I do,” Gwendoline muttered. “I just lost my temper. It won’t happen again, Father. I promise.”
The man didn’t look as though he believed her. “Good night,” he said, turning his attention to the window and the brightly shining moon, dismissing her.
Gwendoline took in a small breath. She understood a dismissal when she heard one, and no matter how angry she was, there was no point in arguing that her actions were justified. And it wasn’t as if she could argue without proving her father’s own claim—that she was too rebellious for her own good.
But that’s fine, I don’t have to be untrue to myself and my convictions just because Father says I must be demure and quiet. I can be brave and bold, too. I just won’t let him know.
Ever since Gwendoline was a little girl, there was one room she was forbidden from ever entering, and that was the bedroom which had once belonged to her uncle Charles. For years, the door existed in Gwendoline’s memory as a great edifice. It was like a piece of forbidden fruit, just out of reach. And as Gwendoline lay in bed, the door loomed in her mind with an unfathomable weight.
I should just look in there. It’s absurd that no one will even enter my uncle’s room.
If her father discovered she’d gone into the room, Gwendoline had no doubt that he’d be angry with her. And besides, there were a number of old fairy tales explaining why young women shouldn’t enter forbidden places. But this was her own uncle, who she’d never known but who seemed to dictate so much of her life.
I’m not going to be quiet and demure in my own home.
Quietly, Gwendoline slipped from her bed. A candle still burned on her vanity. Gwendoline took it, watching as the flame flickered in the darkness. A little thrill of excitement burst through her. Even if she was only doing this to disobey her father, to have some small rebellion, Gwendoline still felt like the heroine in a novel, like a young woman about to embark on some grand adventure to discover the past.
Admittedly, such ventures seldom ended well for young ladies in novels, but if there was one thing which Gwendoline knew very well, it was that the plotlines of novels seldom matched those of the living. And she might as well look. At most, she’d likely uncover some old papers from her dear, lost uncle.
And as long as I’m quiet, no one needs to know.
Gwendoline gripped the bronze holder of the candlestick and quietly slipped from her room and into the corridor. It was nearly midnight, and the luminous moon quietly lit the grand halls of the estate, bathing them in an otherworldly light.
Gwendoline quietly padded down the corridor and then climbed the stairs to the forbidden room. Once she reached it, she paused and glanced around her. Although the entire household was fast asleep by now, she still couldn’t shake the anxious fear that she might still be caught. Sometimes, her father had difficulty in sleeping during the night and took walks through the wild, sprawling gardens that populated the estate. If he happened to be awake and happened to glance up to the bedroom window, Gwendoline knew he’d see the light of her candle and investigate.
And then, he’ll scold me again. As Father always does.
But Gwendoline took a deep breath, and before she could lose her courage, she threw open the door and slipped into the room. For a long, silent moment, she merely stood there, listening and watching the darkness. Then, she dared raise the candle, illuminating the room.
What she found wasn’t particularly surprising. The room was what she’d expected: an antechamber with a richly embroidered seat and a fireplace, presently cold and empty. Beyond that, the space opened to a proper bedroom. Gwendoline drifted in, taking in the bed and the seats. Across the room, there was a table laden with old volumes. A tapestry, featuring the scene of a medieval hunting party chasing a stag, hung over the bed.
“So this is where you slept,” Gwendoline muttered.
She lifted the candle higher, illuminating the thick, white dust which covered every surface. A shiver traced along her spine, both from the cold and from the emptiness of the room, and Gwendoline wished she’d thought to bring her coat with her. No one had been here for years, not even the staff.
Gwendoline drifted in, examining everything. She wasn’t sure precisely what she’d expected to find, but somehow, she’d anticipated there being more than this. It was a forbidden room, which had remained closed for so long, so it seemed as though there ought to be something there. Some great secret or adventure.
Gwendoline walked the length of the room. She gently lifted the curtains and pulled them aside. Outside, the gardens stretched before her. It was too dark for Gwendoline to see the exact details of them, but she knew they would be awash with color. The flowers were all abloom and the pinks and reds of the flowers cut through the green leaves of hedges and grasses. And on overcast days, the gray sky made if all look so brilliant, like a masterfully painted piece of art.
“Did you enjoy this view, Uncle?” she murmured. “I think my father once told me that you enjoyed the gardens.”
As the feeble starlight spread over floor, Gwendoline’s eyes drifted over the room. She squinted at the tapestry. With the difference in light, it looked as if the corner of the tapestry protruded just slightly. Gwendoline edged closer, while trying to keep the light still. She bent her knees and gently lifted the edge of the tapestry. There was a slight protrusion from the wall.
Gwendoline rubbed her fingers over the rough stones and wrinkled her nose. It was a loose stone. She carefully set the candle aside, and taking both hands, she gently pried the stone from the rest of the wall. It came out slowly, as she wobbled it back and forth. Tiny bits of stone and dust fell on her hands and onto the floor, but finally, Gwendoline pulled the stone free. She placed it to the ground and peered into the dark space.
Behind the stone, there was a hollow place, about large enough to put both of her hands in. Gwendoline’s heart raced as she thought of all the troubling things which might be in the place—spiders, lizards, and rats—but gathering her courage, she slipped one delicate hand into the space. The stone was rough against her fingers and wrist, and her thumb broke a spiderweb. Her fingertips brushed against something fragile and thin. Gwendoline gripped it and slowly pulled. She squinted in the darkness as the collection of folded envelopes unfurled like a flag in her hand.
What are these?
Gwendoline lowered herself onto the cold floor and held one of the papers up to the light of her candle. The handwriting was elegant and thin, slanting slightly to the right. Gwendoline pursed her lips together. Somewhere there was a pamphlet in the manor that would explain what this handwriting revealed about this individual’s character, but Gwendoline hadn’t the faintest idea where it was.
More pressing, however, was the question of why these were hidden. There were at least fifteen envelopes, all bound together with a length of faded ribbon. Whatever these were, they were something that her uncle Charles hadn’t wanted found.
But my uncle isn’t around here to tell me not to read them! Nor is my father!
She gathered her candle and the letters, and silently, Gwendoline crept back to her room. The opening of the door seemed disproportionately loud, and she froze for just an instant to see if she’d been caught. But the corridor was empty. She slipped inside her room and closed the door behind her.
Gwendoline went to her writing desk, and after setting down the candlestick, she sank into her chair. Her fingers traced the fine, black lines of writing. An anxious, fiery elation rushed through her body. She liked being rebellious; she decided. It suited her.
I’m just like some grand heroine in a novel!
To Charles Lockwood, the writing read. So these were her uncle’s letters. That wasn’t entirely unexpected. They’d been in his room, after all. Gwendoline hummed and opened the first letter, delicately unfolding the aged paper.
My Dearest Lord,
My heart filled with joy when I saw you last night! You looked so dashing standing in the gardens amidst the pink blooms of the roses and framed by the setting of the sun. I longed to approach you, but I knew I could not. You were alone, and I had other obligations. I’m sure you noticed that throughout the night. But perhaps, we may meet sometime soon? You occupy my every thought, My Lord, and in my humble opinion, it is quite improper for you to plague me so and never approach me.
Gwendoline reread the letter a few times. It was quite obviously a love letter, meant for her uncle. And judging from the well-worn creases, Uncle Charles had likely read its contents many times.
But who wrote this?
Perhaps, her uncle had a sweetheart before Lady Helena seduced him with her wicked wiles. But why had the Lady not written her name? Gwendoline opened another letter and skimmed its contents. It was another letter, this one talking about Charles’s great wit and bright smile. And another, speaking of his devotion to helping the less fortunate.
None of the letters were signed. Maybe Gwendoline’s uncle had been enamored with a common woman, and that was why she did not write her name. So as to avoid the scandal. Gwendoline tried to recall if her uncle had ever been mentioned as having a favorite servant, but there were none.
But then, all Gwendoline knew of her uncle was from her family. He was said to be a noble man. Kind, intelligent, and dashing. A good man, who loved his family more than anything else in the world. But here was evidence of a great love, some nameless woman who’d doted on Charles and whose every word sang with love and affection.
And evidently, he loved this woman. Or she loved him, at least.
This was a side of her uncle Gwendoline had never heard spoken of, though. Her uncle had loved this woman, had saved her letters and read them over and over. Gwendoline imagined him reading them by candlelight, savoring every word. She’d seen one portrait of her uncle as a young man, and in that portrait, Uncle Charles greatly resembled her father. He was tall and broad with thick, dark hair and a warm smile. His eyes were a stunning shade of amber brown. She imagined the glow of the candlelight on his face and his quiet footsteps as he hid the letters behind the tapestry.
But who was this woman? Why had she disappeared, and why had Gwendoline, Charles’s own niece, never heard of her?
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